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How far can Case Keenum take the Minnesota Vikings?

For now, the Minnesota Vikings are sticking with Case Keenum rather than turning the ball over to Teddy Bridgewater. We have discussed in great length if and when Bridgewater should return, but haven’t closely looked at a scenario in which Keenum starts the rest of the season. Would the Vikings continue to win at their current rate? How would they stack up in the postseason? Let’s have a look…

How is Keenum winning? 

In games in which Keenum has made an appearance, the Vikings are 6-2 this season. Coming into 2017, the former Texan and Ram had won just nine games in 24 starts.

Considering his age and experience, it’s unlikely that Keenum made major leaps forward as a quarterback, yet his statistics are better this year across the board. His quarterback rating hadn’t topped 80 in his previous two stops, but it currently sits at a shiny 92.6. Keenums TD:INT ratio, Adjusted Yards Per Attempt, completion percentage is all better in Minnesota than Houston and St. Louis/Los Angeles. The likely explanation for this is the team around him is leaps and bounds better than it has been in the past.

One way to demonstrate this is the Vikings’ success on play-action throws. They current rank third in the NFL, only 0.1 yards per attempt behind the Rams.

Throws with play-action: 10.2 yards per attempt (3rd)

Throws without play-action: 6.2 yards per attempt (22nd)

While it’s true that the QB has to make the throws, play-action success tends to be driven by scheme. For example, Keenum made a good throw to Stefon Diggs on his 51-yard catch last week, but Diggs was 1-on-1 in large part because Washington bit on play-action.

In order to have success on play-action plays, the offensive line must protect well and there must be some level of convincing the team could run. Offensive coordinator tends to do said convincing by using two or three tight end sets and his power back Latavius Murray.

Last season, when Keenum was sacked 23 times in 10 games (this year he’s been sacked five times), the Rams had some success with play-action, averaging 8.3 yards per attempt, but only used play-action plays 16% of the time (compared to 27% this season). That is likely because their offensive line could not hold up to run play-action more often.

The Vikings’ two receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are on another planet from Keenum’s weapons last season. PFF ranks Diggs ninth and Thielen as the fourth best receiver in the NFL. In Los Angeles, Keenum’s top two were Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin.

Minnesota’s running game is far superior to the Rams’ attack last year. The Vikings have the third most 20-plus yard runs in the NFL this season and sit 11th in yards per game. The 2016 Rams were 25th in 20-plus yard runs and 31st in yards per game.

The Vikings’ defense cannot be overlooked as a major player in shaping the perception of Keenum’s time in Minnesota. Only two times have the Vikings’ defenders allowed more than 20 points in games that Keenum played, they rank fifth in yards against, fifth in points against and second in rushing yards per attempt against. Prior to Washington’s 313-yard passing day, the Vikings had given up 161 yards or fewer passing in each of the previous five games.

Long story long, the Vikings have put Keenum in a situation to succeed. And to his credit, he has had solid statistical success and terrific success at his No. 1 job: To win games.

Who is the real Case Keenum? 

Case Keenum will need all the things that have helped him achieve success to continue to be there in order to sustain his winning ways.

Here’s how we know: The league’s best quarterbacks can be relied upon to bring their teams back in games and come up with big plays on third and long to sustain drives.

When the Vikings have been ahead (105 throws), Keenum has averaged 8.0 yards per attempt. When he is either tied or behind (157 throws), that number sinks to 6.8 yards per attempt. That’s the difference between ranking fifth and 26th in the NFL.

On third-and-6 or more, Keenum’s quarterback rating is 49.5 on 39 pass attempts and he averages 5.7 yards per attempt. Those numbers match up to his previous seasons. With Houston and St. Louis/Los Angeles, his third down YPA was 6.0 and rating 72.7. Compare that to

Coincidentally, between 2013 and 2016 on third-and-long, Teddy Bridgewater sported the league’s best YPA at 9.4 – although only on 94 throws compared to Ben Roethlisberger’s 219 at 9.3 yards per attempt. The best QBs were above their average YPA, whereas Keenum’s mark was comparable to Brandon Weeden and Chad Henne.

As we analyze Keenum’s numbers, we should keep in mind that different quarterback grading measures stats tell us different things. Take for example ESPN’s QBR, which ranks Keenum as the third best QB in the NFL this year. Not only is it a supremely small sample, but also its function is to grade the results of plays and put value on yardage gained at different times in the game rather than telling you whether a QB made a good throw or not.

It tells you about the situations a QB has been in and the results.

Here is the career distribution of single-game QBR scores for Keenum.

Great games Good games Mediocre games Bad games
98.9 72 48.5 24.7
95.9 69.8 46.3 21.8
90.2 64.4 44.5 6.2
79.4 57.2 42.9 4
55.9 36.3
54.4 36
30.7
29.8
28.4
26

The takeaway should be that under varying circumstances, Keenum’s results have been widely varied, but the majority of his career performances fall somewhere in the middle – which isn’t a bad thing for a fill-in QB.

There are also stats that look more at a quarterback’s process, but of course they will be more subjective.

Pro Football Focus’s grades for Keenum’s play this year aren’t that different than from his past two seasons.

How could that be? Well, a stat like QBR would give Keenum huge credit for a 50-50 ball tossed downfield, even if Stefon Diggs ripped it from the hands of a defender. PFF would specifically grade whether it was a good throw.

One thing that helps Keenum is that he isn’t a typical game-managing backup. While he’s only gone 7-for-24 on throws of more than 20 yards, at least he’s been willing to look for big plays and given Diggs and Thielen a chance to do their thing downfield.

So looking at Keenum through PFF’s lens, he’s still making enough good throws to rank 17th in the NFL, but is likely having his numbers inflated by the play and scheme around him.

It’s fairly common for quality backup quarterbacks to have very solid stretches. Brian Hoyer was at the helm on a Texans team that made the playoffs in 2015 at age 30. He tossed 19 touchdowns and only seven INTs that season. Over the long haul, however, Hoyer and Keenum’s career numbers have been very similar.

No two players are exactly the same, but if you were creating quarterback tiers, Keenum and Hoyer would fall into the same category of QBs who can win games, but do not drive wins.

The Near Future

Maintaining his level of quality results against the upcoming opponents will not be easy for Keenum, even with a strong supporting cast. The group includes two former NFL MVPs (possibly three if Rodgers plays) and the league’s leader in yards/attempt.

Upcoming quarterback matchups:

Jared Goff

Matthew Stafford 

Matt Ryan 

Cam Newton

Andy Dalton 

Brett Hundley or Aaron Rodgers

Mitch Trubisky

Upcoming defensive points allowed rank:

The group of defenses isn’t impossible, but only two rank in the bottom half of the league in scoring defense.

Rams (3rd)

Lions (21st)

Falcons (11th)

Panthers (4th)

Bengals (12th)

Packers (18th)

Bears (13th)

Talkin’ about Playoffs?

Recent history does not look kindly upon unproven quarterbacks or QBs with a history as a backup or fringe starter. Since 2010, the only times a backup-level QB beat a Pro Bowler was in 2010 when the Mark Sanchez Jets took down Tom Brady and the Patriots and TJ Yates beat Andy Dalton (2011).

Since then we’ve seen Nick Foles lose to Drew Brees (2013), Brock Osweiler fall to Brady (2016) and Matt Moore lose to Ben Roethlisberger (2016).

Here’s how the playoffs would look if they started today…

Wild Card Round:

Russell Wilson vs. Drew Brees

Cam Newton vs. Jared Goff

In the hunt…

Matt Ryan

Matthew Stafford

Aaron Rodgers (?)

Dak Prescott

Bottom line

Considering his solid play over the first half of this year, there’s a great chance that Keenum could lead the Vikings to a division title and continue to play at a fairly high level, but recent history doesn’t give him much of a shot against former Super Bowl winners, league MVPs and up-and-coming star quarterbacks.

However, Keenum has done an excellent job leading a team that is in win-now mode. Many teams would have fallen apart when losing their starter for all but six quarters of the first nine games.





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Previous Story Former Vikings QB Gus Frerotte has been in Case Keenum’s shoes and had a lot of fun along the way Next Story Why Teddy Bridgwater’s clutch history matters